News / Middle East

Will Egypt Unrest Undermine Middle East Peace Process?

Anti-Mubarak protesters hold an huge Egyptian flag in Cairo's Tahrir Square, February 8, 2011
Anti-Mubarak protesters hold an huge Egyptian flag in Cairo's Tahrir Square, February 8, 2011

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Masses of demonstrators continue their protest against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.  Our correspondent looks at whether events in Egypt have any effect on the Middle East peace process involving Israelis and Palestinians.

Just days after being inaugurated president of the United States on January 20, 2009, Barack Obama named former Senator George Mitchell as U.S. special envoy to the Middle East.  Mitchell’s negotiating skills were well documented, as he helped mediate the 1998 Good Friday Accord in Northern Ireland.  His appointment by Mr. Obama was seen as a strong signal that the United States was committed to getting negotiations started again between Israelis and Palestinians.  

But more than two years after Mitchell’s appointment, analysts say the peace process is going nowhere.

Fawaz Gerges is with the London School of Economics:

"There is no peace process.  The peace process is dead, and we know why the peace process is dead," Gerges said. "Let us be blunt about it.  President Barack Obama invested considerable political capital in trying to nudge the Palestinians and the Israelis into a comprehensive peace settlement, trying to broker a settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis.  Let us not fudge the issue.  The issue is the Israeli side is unwilling to basically freeze settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem - even partial settlements."

The Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, has made it clear it will not negotiate with Israel so long as it continues to build settlements in occupied territory.

Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft says both sides are intransigent.

"On the Israeli side, they are clearly not prepared to stop building settlements, which are a threat to a two-state solution," Scowcroft said. "On the Arab side, there is increasing agitation to abandon a two-state solution, which will be a catastrophe for Israel."

Many analysts say the current upheaval in Egypt has nothing to do with the stalled Middle East peace process.

Daniel Kurtzer was a former U.S. ambassador to both Egypt and Israel.

"The peace process has been in some crisis anyway before this outbreak in Egypt," Kurtzer said. "The administration has been trying for two years to get some traction for negotiations and has not really succeeded.  So at the moment, I think the events in Egypt simply exacerbate the problem that the peace process is facing.  And certainly they do not make it easier to envisage negotiations in the short term."

Former senior State Department official Aaron David Miller, who is now with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says events in Egypt present a sort of silver lining for President Obama.

"In a way, in an odd way, the administration has been saved by developments in Egypt because at least for the short term, they do not have to think about a strategy toward the peace process," Miller said. "It is stuck - and there is very little that the Obama administration right now is able or willing to do about it."

Looking at Israeli-Egyptian relations, experts such as Fawaz Gerges say one cause for concern, especially for Israel, is what kind of government will emerge in Egypt to replace President Hosni Mubarak?  And will it abide by the 1979 peace treaty signed between the two countries?

"If I were to look at it from an Israeli point of view, one of the major lessons that emerges, so far, out of the Egyptian drama, is that as long as there is no peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Israel will never feel secure," Gerges said. "That is - by relying on one man, that is Mubarak, or one man, the late President Anwar Sadat, Israel’s security is more of short term as opposed to the long term."

In the final analysis, many experts believe whatever government comes out of the upheaval in Egypt will abide by the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace accord.

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